Guide to 5 martial art styles

Looking for a fun, new way to exercise? Martial arts might be just what you need. There’s a style to suit everyone, regardless of your age or fitness level.
Published 28 February 2017

Martial arts and weight loss

Martial arts may bring to mind images of Hollywood action heroes like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but fitness experts now believe that martial arts has a lot to offer anyone looking for a fun, effective way to keep active, improve their fitness and lose weight.

Exercise physiologist Neil Russell, of ATLETA Health & Fitness, says when practised regularly, most martial arts styles build discipline, fitness, flexibility, balance and coordination. “The stop-start nature of martial arts training could be described as interval training, which is a very effective form of training for weight loss.” Russell says. “Also it requires you to move in different directions whilst in a balanced, strong position, meaning that you get a full body workout and strengthen your stabiliser muscles as well as your prime movers.” he explains.

Russell, who has worked with elite athletes from a range of different sports, says regular martial arts training, eating healthily and getting enough sleep, can help with your weight loss journey. Another benefit is that martial arts training is usually conducted in a group, which means you’ll have your own ‘built-in’ support network to advise, inspire and motivate you. Russell says martial arts is safe for kids, too. So this could be a great activity for the whole family to try.

Find out how to pick a style that suits you, then get the lowdown on five different types of martial arts. Make your choice and start fighting your way to better health.

Before you sign up

Ask around and search online to find a suitable style and school. Before signing up, talk through any concerns, particularly any injuries you might have and check that the instructors are properly accredited. Ask if you can try a class to see if you feel comfortable first. Most martial arts schools let you do a beginners’ session for free, and most of them also run introductory programs if it’s something you’ve never tried before.

Choosing a style

Each martial arts style offers a different mind-body focus and skill set. While some people enjoy the more formal styles of taekwondo and wing chun kung fu, others prefer the flowing, relaxed movement of capoeira or the challenging training of the streetwise self-defence style, krav maga. Courtesy of their great lower-body strength, women often excel in styles featuring kicks, blocks, close combat and fast-striking moves.

Start slow

Russell cautions against doing too much, too quickly. “It is important to move slowly and develop the correct foundational technique, pushing beyond the appropriate level is likely to result in poor technique and injury.” he says. “With martial arts, knees, shoulders and backs are commonly injured areas. If you’re unsure, progress slowly or get a physiotherapist to assess you beforehand. An experienced instructor should be able to tell if you’re capable of doing certain moves safely.”

1. Brazilian jiu-jitsu

What it is: The South American offshoot of the ancient Chinese style judo, Brazilian jiu-jitsu favours close-combat ground fighting, using leverage and inertia to counteract superior strength.

Who's it for: Brazilian jiu-jitsu works for everybody. Ellis says all ages can get something out of it from eight-year-olds to people in their fifties. It’s great for fitness, stamina and developing impressive self-defence skills.

What to expect: Exciting close combat, which increases cardiovascular fitness and core strength, minus the repetition of some other forms of training. “We train at 100 per cent every session, fighting opponents who are resisting 100 per cent,” explains Ellis. “So jiu-jitsu is definitely a cardio activity – but unlike running or cycling, no two training sessions are the same.

During your six-month initiation, you’ll learn all the basic jiu-jitsu positions, which at first seem like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Once the pieces come together, you never want to quit.” Ellis says initially it can be challenging. “I tell my students to be consistent and persist,” he says. As you progress and acquire successive, coloured belts through graded combat, your self-confidence soars.

You'd be surprised: How little size and strength matter. One of Ellis’s best students is a 55kg female, it’s all about technique and timing.

2. Krav maga

What it is: Developed by the Israeli Defense Forces, krav maga is a system of self-defence so effective it’s been adopted by elite security units worldwide, yet it’s so simple it can be mastered by school kids. “Krav maga focuses on tried-and-tested tactics that can be imparted quickly and employed successfully in real-life survival situations”, says Ron Engelman, an IDF-trained instructor with Australia’s Krav Maga Defence Institute.

Who's it for: As gung-ho as it may be, krav maga is designed to suit all body types and fitness levels. “Techniques are deliberately simple and practical,” says Engelman. It’s challenging but a good instructor won’t overextend you, setting exercises that get you to test your limits. They might get you to do as many sit-ups as you can in a minute – whether that’s five or 25.

What to expect: Motivating results and never a dull moment. Training is an effective, nonstop mix of stand-up and ground fighting, mixed with push-ups, sit-ups, and partner drills. “There’s an intense aerobic component. Pretty quickly you will start to see your skill and stamina increase,” Engelman explains.

You'd be surprised: How easy it is. “Because you’re focused on learning skills to apply to real-life situations, it doesn’t feel like ‘exercise’,” Engelman says.

3. Wing Chun

What it is: Wing chun is an offshoot of kung fu developed by a Buddhist nun who was skilled in Shaolin martial arts. It’s a versatile style of martial arts that appeals to people of all ages. According to Tristan Fung, an instructor at International Wing Chun Academy NSW, the movements are fast, powerful and direct.

Who's it for: Everyone! “Wing Chun suits men and women of all shapes and sizes, as it doesn’t rely on physical strength or athleticism to be effective,” Fung says.

What to expect: “Typical’ classes start with a sequence of attacking and defensive movements, then a cardio-based warm-up,” explains Fung. “You’ll learn how to defend against common types of attacks and practice moves safely with a partner, ending with a high-intensity ‘power training’ session.

You'd be surprised: How versatile it is. “You can apply it in any situation – standing, sitting, on the floor, against multiple opponents, even against weapons,” Fung says.

4. Capoeira

What it is: Developed as a disguised form of self-defence by African slaves in Brazil, capoeira is “less martial art than art form”, says Brazilian-trained mestre (black cord master) Andre Cerruti of Sydney-based Capoeira Australia. The fluid, dance-like style involves not just kicking but rhythm and control.

Who's it for: Capoeira suits people of all ages and fitness levels. With its dance-like elements, lively music and supportive vibe, it’s great for kids and anyone young at heart. Beginners are also welcome. “You train with others at your level, quickly learning it’s not about how hard you punch, how high you kick, how fast you move – it’s about working with your own limits,” Cerruti says. “A good instructor will teach you the basics safely, letting you progress at your own rate.”

What to expect: Beginners’ classes teach you how to control your body using agility and strength. You’ll learn basic kicks and how to fend off attacks. “After two weeks, you’re ready to play basic-level games in the roda (ring), where you put together sequences,” says Cerruti. Skill level is designated by colour-coded cords, but you’re really only challenging yourself. “You advance only because you want to get better at the game.”

You'd be surprised: Just how much energy you’ll burn while having fun. “It’s low-impact, but you’re constantly in motion, so it’ll definitely make you sweat,” Cerruti says. Find out more:

5. Taekwondo

What it is: A Korean fighting style that evolved over centuries, taekwondo (‘the way of kicking and punching’) teaches you to deflect an attack and defeat opponents with powerful, precisely-targeted kicks, jumps, blocks, punches and open-handed strikes.

Who's it for: As with most other forms of martial arts Taekwondo is for everyone. “It is an amazing form of martial arts training for all ages and shapes, ideal for beginners right through to competing for an Olympic medal. The training progresses as you do.” says Russell

What to expect: Beginners’ sessions focus on developing rhythm, spatial awareness, coordination and the flexibility needed for the high-impact, high-intensity moves to follow. “You’ll notice changes in flexibility within the first month. Coordination and rhythm can take longer,” says Dr Raul Landeo, a lecturer in exercise and sports science at Australian Catholic University, a taekwondo black belt and former national coach to Peru’s Olympic Team. Taekwondo is a whole-body exercise with a large aerobic component. As you aim to deliver kicks and punches to your opponent, you quickly develop more strength and power.

You'd be surprised: How tough-minded you’ll become. “Taekwondo fosters the self-discipline and efficacy to gain results,” Landeo says. “Drive and commitment develop naturally as we realise it’s possible to master our bodies and moves we once thought were difficult.” Find out more: